Thanks to Dombrowski, Tigers' future appears brighter

BY foxsports • August 2, 2015

BALTIMORE -- There's gutsy determination, then there's pure stupidity.

One should be applauded for playing through painful cramps, but don't try to stay out there with a shredded hamstring.

By their recent standards, the 2015 Detroit Tigers had that dreaded shredded hamstring.

Their bullpen was weak, their starting pitching was underwhelming, and their offense didn't have enough to make up for those glaring deficiencies. Worse yet, their farm system was depleted to the point where Dave Dombrowski couldn't tune up his team on the fly like he had in previous years.

So the president, CEO and general manager of the Tigers did the smart thing. Despite receiving some criticism for throwing in the towel on this season when the playoffs were still within reach, Dombrowski looked at the bigger picture and decided to prepare his team for the future.

We got a glimpse of that future Sunday afternoon at Camden Yards, where Daniel Norris -- the centerpiece of the five young pitchers Detroit acquired in trades Thursday and Friday -- made his Tigers debut and earned a 6-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles.

His top feat of the afternoon, however, was keeping the Tigers' bullpen in the bullpen until he gave up a sharp single to second baseman Jonathan Schoop with one out in the eighth inning. But Bruce Rondon erased him by getting right fielder Nolan Reimold to ground into a double play and then Alex Wilson retired the Orioles in order in the ninth to close it out for Norris.

In his 7 1/3 innings of work, Norris threw just 84 pitches, 50 for strikes. Early on, he mostly used his fastball, which topped out at 93 miles per hour, and a cutter to set the tone. Later in the game, he added a curveball.

"We set up a game plan that we wanted to establish his fastball," Tigers catcher James McCann said. "He did that, and that made his off-speed pitches all the better."

Working surprisingly quickly in such a big moment, Norris struck out the very first batter he faced, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, on three pitches -- the last being high heat that Machado waved at and missed. Norris then got left fielder Gerardo Parra to strike out swinging on a low-and-away cutter on a full count. Finally, center fielder Adam Jones had barely settled into the batter's box before grounding out to third to end the inning.

And maybe start something special for the Tigers, who also benefited from a first-inning, three-run homer by (my knee is just fine, thank you) J.D. Martinez, his 29th of the season.

"It's good," said a notably calm Norris, who hadn't started in the majors since April 30, and was 3-10 with a 4.27 ERA for Triple-A Buffalo this season. "You always want to make a good impression, but you got to stay within yourself. If you go out there and try to do too much, the wheels can fall off pretty quickly. I think I did a fine job of staying within myself and pitching my game."

Staked to that early lead, Norris wasn't perfect. What kid is? Seems like every time one of yours does something to make you proud, he follows it up by spilling grape juice all over the plush, tan sofa.

Norris did that in the fourth inning, grooving a pitch to first baseman Chris Davis, who sent his 26th homer of the season about 400 feet into the right-field stands.

Yet Norris also did so much right, including making a diving catch on J.J. Hardy's sacrifice-bunt attempt with runners on first and second and nobody out in the second inning. Norris then got designated hitter Jimmy Paredes to weakly bounce into a 4-6-3 double play to stop the threat.

"He looked like a pretty good athlete out there," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said of Norris' diving catch.

Shortly after the trade that sent ace David Price to Toronto for Norris and fellow left-handers Matt Boyd, 24, and Jairo Labourt, 21, Dombrowski called Norris a four-pitch guy with an above-average fastball. At the time, Dombrowski failed to mention that Norris works so quickly. He gets the ball, immediately steps on the mound and throws.

Thanks mostly to Norris' pace, Sunday's game lasted just 2 hours, 32 minutes -- perfect on a steamy, 90-degreee day.

"Quick," said a beaming Alan Trammell as he headed to the Tigers clubhouse after the game. "I like the pace."

Norris, -- listed at 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 195 pounds -- has received a lot of attention for living in an old Volkswagen van while at spring training in Dunedin, Fla. Now the buzz will be all about what he did on the field Sunday.

"Very obviously, the results were there," McCann said. "That's a no-brainer, but the demeanor that he has, the poise on the mound, the pace that he pitches at -- he wants the ball; he gets right back on the rubber and wants to attack -- that's something very special to see out of a young kid like that."

Before the game, Dombrowski and former manager Jim Leyland, now a special assistant to GM, sat at one end of the third-base dugout and chatted while their team took batting practice. With one of the latest top-40 hits playing over the ballpark's sound system, the conversation couldn't be heard.

What was very audible, though, were the boisterous words of Ausmus as he came up the stairs and into the dugout.

"Any words of wisdom?" Ausmus jokingly barked at the two men.

Truth is, the wisdom has already been bestowed upon the organization by Dombrowski himself.

Sure, after trading away his best starting pitcher in Price, his best reliever in Joakim Soria (to Pittsburgh for Double-A shortstop JaCoby Jones, 23) and one of his best hitters in Yoenis Cespedes (to the New York Mets for a pair of right-handed prospects: Michael Fulmer, 22, and Luis Cessa, 23.), Ausmus has a shell of team for the next couple of months and will be lucky to finish above the .500 mark.

But the Tigers are more equipped for 2016 and beyond now. They've added six prospects for players they probably would have lost for nothing. They still have the nucleus of Miguel Cabrera, Jose Iglesias, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez, Nick Castellanos, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez to build around. They'll also surely be buyers in the free-agent market this winter, and -- by some accounts -- are the favorites to get Cespedes under a new contract.

Really, it all comes down to this: What's the most important thing for this franchise?

The playoffs have almost become old hat for the Tigers. They've won four straight division titles and made two recent World Series appearances (2006 and 2012) -- but still haven't won a championship since 1984.

Just getting in now -- maybe for as little as a single wild-card game -- shouldn't be enough anymore, and it obviously wasn't for Dombrowski. He, as does owner Mike Ilitch, wants it all: season-long greatness, followed by several champagne celebrations and then a parade down Woodward.

After these past few days -- and with an offseason to let that shredded hamstring heal -- the Tigers should be a lot closer to that ultimate goal.

And based on Sunday's performance, Norris might be one of the guys to lead the charge.

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